“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness” Elie Wiesel
27th of January 1945, Soviet troops liberate the few remanding living souls in the German concentration camp Auschwitz. 70 years on, Auschwitz still stands.
I studied the holocaust as part of my degree at university, reading books written by survivors, watching documentaries interviewing them, writing essays on the trauma. We were crammed with information, yet this was merely a drop in the ocean. One can never know it all, the holocaust is an infinite dark hole.
It’s so incomprehensible that some have even chosen denial, not believing 11 million people were murdered: 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews including Roman gipsies, Jehovah witnesses, eastern european intellectuals, priest and pastors, homosexuals, prisoners of war, resistance fighters, the disabled and mentally ill.
The nightmare of Hitler’s “Final Solution” was sadly very real. The whole of Europe was affected and still is. It forever changed the face of Europe with entire villages, towns, communities wiped out.
Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Ukraine, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, all had holocaust victims.
In Ukraine, over a million jews were shot by Nazi death squads named ‘Einsatzgruppen’. The most notorious mass killing was just outside Kiev on a ravine Babi Yar where 33,771 jews were murdered September 29-30 1941.
Today we know the holocaust number, 11 million, but still can’t fathom it. Our duty is not to just see the number, hear it, think of it, but see the people, hear them, remember them.
The victims were reduced to numbers by the Nazis, reduced to cattle to be rounded up, shipped from A to B, stripped, and exterminated. 11 million grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, all gone.
I visited Auschwitz on the 4th of May 2013.
It was strange. Turned into a museum. Busy. Groups of tourists walking around viewing this cell, that gas chamber, the execution wall, the lavatories. We were hurried along as groups only have a set amount of time. It felt wrong like we were trespassing on sacred ground, walking over graves, disturbing the peaceful dead.
But it is also a necessity, to see, to talk, to share. Auschwitz remains. It is a miracle. The Nazis tried to destroy their crimes, blowing up gas chambers, burning documents, burning people, forcing survivors on a Death March. With such atrocity, the Nazis could not erase everything. Traces remain for us to find, for us to remember. Visiting Auschwitz is essential. The site is the voice for the thousands of voiceless whose ashes fill the ground.
The tour was not for me, I wanted to be alone. To wander, absorb it all, have time to think and pray.
Auschwitz I, was smaller than I imagined. Neat rows of brick buildings, which originally served as army barracks for the Austrian military, are fenced in with barbed and electric wire. Guard lookouts and megaphones are placed regimentally around. Each red row divides into blocks, each with a purpose: housing the prisoners, torturing the prisoners, experimenting on the prisoners. The gas chamber is at one end. Groups of tourists walk in and out where groups of prisoners could never exit. Gassed, burned, their ashes scattered into the air and shovelled into the ground.
We then move onto Auschwitz II. Vast and larger. Rows of barns, now in ruin, lining fields. A railway track coming into the prison. In the centre of the camp, the “selection” spot, where a simple flick of a finger left or right would determine the prisoner’s fate.
Auschwitz II had four crematoriums with eight gas chambers and forty-six ovens, capable of killing 4,400 people per day. In total, at least 1.1 million were gassed to death at Auschwitz, 90% of them being Jews.
Auschwitz, the death factory, ran to precision for Hitler. One of the most efficient ways of mass murdering. One of many such camps around Europe. The insanity of it blows you away. How grown men came to build such a monstrosity. Climbing up the killing career ladder, they eagerly wanted to please their superiors like Himmler and dreamed of recognition for their ‘service’ from the almighty Führer.
Off duty, they would head home to their families. Wives housekeeping, decorating their homes with the prisoners’ stolen belongings while their husbands relax after a long day of mass murder at the office.
The people in charge of the operations, everyone involved ensured camps like Auschwitz ran like clockwork. They may have been following orders, but each and everyone, from the top to the lowest rank, knew it was wrong.
The reason Nazis started gassing was to make the Nazi soldiers’ jobs easier. Shooting prisoners at close range caused more psychological strain to them. Pilling people into gas chambers, was efficient, money saving, and meant no Nazi had to pull a trigger. Groups of prisoners strong enough to move the dead bodies were forced to clean up the chambers, and then were themselves gassed. The least contact the Nazis had with the bodies, the larger the number of prisoners gassed and cremated, the more efficient the killing machine worked.
The Final Solution was a secret program, secret because it was so monstrous, because they knew it was devil’s work.
The Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, expressed his doubts in his prison memoir. Admitting his qualms only when he had nowhere to hide. Not matter how much you deny, suppress, lie to yourself, you cannot fool your conscience.
“I had to exercise great self-control so as not let any of my personal doubts or my sense of oppression show in my agitation after these experiences. I had to appear cold and heartless while watching things that would go the heart of anyone with any human feeling. I could not even turn away when emotions that were all to human were aroused in me. I had to watch, unmoved, as mothers went to the gas chambers with their laughing or crying children.” p136 Hanns & Rudolf.
Rudolf Höss numbed his humanity. Persuading himself there was no other option. He “had to” set a ruthless example to those working for him. He turned himself into the Auschwitz Kommandant Hitler wanted. Nobody else but him.
He didn’t “have to” kill, he didn’t have to command others to kill. There is always the choice to stand up and say no, even if it puts your own life at risk.
Would you rather live murdering thousands of people a day, or die protesting?
If he, as Kommandant, had refused to implement the Final Solution, others may have followed and Hitler’s insane reign could have imploded.
But Rudolf Höss, like many others, obeyed orders no questions asked. Helping Hitler create hell on earth, ‘exterminating’ 11 million lives. Over and over they murdered, nothing stopped them, nothing but Hitler’s defeat.